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Playing with Today

Charles Simic’s collection of autobiographical fragments, A Fly in the Soup (2000), concludes with one of his earliest memories. It is 1942 or 1943, so he is four or five years old. Despite the war, operas are still being performed in Belgrade, and his mother has taken him to a performance of The Marriage of Figaro:

It’s the first act, and Susanna and Figaro are in an eighteenth-century salon, pacing up and down…. At one point Susanna brushes against one of the candles, and the long scarf she is wearing over her shoulders catches fire. The audience gasps. She stops singing and stands clutching her head in terror while the flames get bigger and bigger. Figaro, without missing a beat, quickly snatches the scarf, throws it on the floor, and stamps on it like a Spanish dancer. All along he’s singing that beautiful music….

Simic’s poetry has always been fascinated by the borderline between art and violence. “So I sat between the word truth,” he writes in the very early “Pastoral” (1969),

And the word gallows
Took out my tin can
And spoon.

Reflecting on the opera singer’s presence of mind in the course of his conversation with Michael Hulse (the English poet and translator of W.G. Sebald), Simic marvels again at

the way he kept the comic spirit of the performance uninterrupted while the audience gasped in horror. Outside, the war was on. We were an occupied country. People were arrested, disappeared or were sent to camps. There were public executions. That’s how art exists in this world of ours—a clear head in the face of calamity.

Yet at the same time his poetry shows itself constantly aware of how its own energies and patterning are determined by the “calamity” from which it derives its origin. The locus classicus of this theme in Simic’s work is still his earliest expression of it, the final stanza of “Butcher Shop” of 1967:

There is a wooden block where bones are broken,
Scraped clean—a river dried to its bed
Where I am fed,
Where deep in the night I hear a voice.

There can be no complete description of the sources or evolution of any good poet’s “voice,” and poets themselves are rarely willing to reduce their alchimie du verbe to a scientific formula. Simic is particularly wary of imposing on his imagination, the voice at 3:00 AM, any kind of agenda. “The most beautiful riddle has no answer,” he has his muse figure say in his densest and most elaborate embodiment of the mysteries of the imagination, and his longest-ever poem, “White,” first issued in 1972, and then revised and republished in four different versions.

But Simic’s riddles, however unanswerable, tend to be ways of engaging, rather than avoiding, history; they seem driven primarily by the urge to present what he calls in a 1986 essay, “Poetry and History,” reprinted in his latest collection of prose pieces, The Metaphysician in the Dark (the title is borrowed from Wallace Stevens),

a kind of reverse history of what in the great scheme of things are often regarded as “unimportant” events, the image of a dead cat, say, lying in the rubble of a bombed city, rather than the rationale for that air campaign.

He quotes a line by the Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo, who writes of “the black howl of the mother gone to meet her son crucified on a telephone pole.” “Perhaps only in lyric poetry,” Simic comments, “can that mother’s howl be heard as loudly as it ought to be.”

Certainly Simic’s own poetry is best approached as a kind of “reverse history”; his laconic, bleached, often puzzling lyrics avoid pointing morals or extracting clear meanings from the scenes they enact; instead they skillfully create the illusion that they have just stumbled over or backed into bizarre juxtapositions that startle and unnerve—or at the very least invite the reader to pause for thought. The tiny opening piece in this selection of Simic’s work of the last two decades typifies his most basic maneuver:

DECEMBER

It snows
and still the derelictsgo
carrying sandwich boards—
one proclaiming
the end of the world
the other
the rates of a local barbershop.

His poems often swing in this manner between the ordinary and the ultimate, like updated versions of Emily Dickinson’s darting, dizzying transitions from the quotidian to the sublime:

A Clock stopped—
Not the Mantel’s—
Geneva’s farthest skill
Cant put the puppet bowing
That just now dangled still—
An awe came on the Trinket!
The Figures hunched—with pain—
Then quivered out of Decimals—
Into Degreeless Noon—

Well, where shall I begin?” Simic responds when asked by Hulse about the influence of Dickinson’s work on his own development. “She writes short poems and I write short poems. She speculates about ultimate things and so do I. She thrives on paradoxes and contradictions and so do I…. She felt like an outsider and so do I.”

Simic emigrated to Chicago with his family, by way of Paris, in 1953. He has lived in America for fifty years, and frequently insists he is much more an American poet—one in the tradition of New England writers such as Dickinson, Thoreau, Emerson, Melville, William James, and Robert Frost—than a Serbian or European one. He has never attempted to compose poems in his mother tongue, and even found himself unable to translate his own work into Serbian (“I knew all the words, of course, but had lost the feel for what they do to the native speaker”). On the other hand, as he also acknowledges to Hulse, the vision of history articulated by his poems runs directly counter to ideals of American election: “I’m a poet haunted by history,” he declares, “writing in a country which long ago replaced history with utopia.”

All Simic’s writing is strongly, of-ten virulently, anti-utopian. Of the nineteenth-century American writers who mean so much to him, he is much closer to the Melville of The Confidence-Man or the darker chapters of Moby-Dick than the Emerson of Nature. In a poem such as “Two Dogs” (1990), for instance, Simic takes an anecdote that might have furnished Mark Twain with an episode or short story in a wholly surprising direction:

An old dog afraid of his own shadow
In some Southern town.
The story told me by a woman going blind,
One fine summer evening
As shadows were creeping
Out of the New Hampshire woods,
A long street with just a worried dog
And a couple of dusty chickens,
And all that sun beating down
In that nameless Southern town.

The contrasting scenes of this opening stanza suggest that the poem is working toward a meditation on the difference between New England and the Deep South. There is a picture postcard quality to both depictions that is heightened by the absence of a main verb from its two sentences. While the first two lines promise some kind of anecdote, that promise is diffused in the eight that follow into quietly clichéd scene-painting: the story of the paranoid hound allows the poet’s imagination to rove from his fine New Hampshire evening to its Southern opposite, a baking street, some dusty (Simic’s all-time favorite adjective) chickens, and the slightly freakish worried dog. The stanza gently activates the myths of North and South, and both dog and nearly blind woman tremble on the threshold of the archetypal. The second stanza is also ten lines long:

It made me remember the Germans marching
Past our house in 1944.
The way everybody stood on the sidewalk
Watching them out of the corner of the eye,
The earth trembling, death going by…
A little white dog ran into the street
And got entangled with the soldiers’ feet.
A kick made him fly as if he had wings.
That’s what I keep seeing!
Night coming down. A dog with wings.

There are many good American poems by such writers as Anthony Hecht, Louis Simpson, and Randall Jarrell about the Second World War, but none that captures the experience of passive, terrified civilians with this kind of subtlety and force. While the dog of the first stanza seems on the point of sliding into the mythology of Southern Gothic, the soaring white mutt of the second illustrates exactly the kind of “reverse history” that Simic believes is the domain of lyric poetry. This dog has more than his own shadow to worry about. But it’s also worth pointing out how deftly “Two Dogs” avoids triggering the repository of emotions that war stories normally exploit. The image of German troops marching through a cowed populace, familiar from so much newsreel footage, is unobtrusively but firmly focused by “our house,” then brilliantly disrupted by the image of the kicked dog: “That’s what I keep seeing!/Night coming down. A dog with wings.” As in the first stanza, we are not allowed to forget the part played by the poet’s own imagination in the scene the poem describes: it is the helplessness of the six-year-old boy forced to watch death march that begets the transfiguring, compensatory fantasy of flight.

One of the most striking episodes in A Fly in the Soup concerns a conversation Simic had in 1972 with the poet Richard Hugo, whom he ran into in a restaurant in San Francisco. Simic tells Hugo he has just returned from a trip to Belgrade:

Oh yes,” he said, “I can see that city well.”

Without knowing my background, he proceeded to draw on the tablecloth, among the breadcrumbs and wine stains, the location of the main post office, the bridges over the Danube and Sava, and a few other important landmarks. Without a clue as to what all this meant, supposing that he had visited the city as a tourist at one time, I inquired how much time he had spent in Belgrade.

I was never there,” he replied. “I only bombed it a few times.”

When absolutely astonished, I blurted out that I was there at the time and that it was me he was bombing, Hugo became very upset. In fact, he was deeply shaken.

Simic reassures him that he bears no grudge, that both were just “two befuddled bit players in events beyond our control.” The cinematic metaphor of the bit player is taken up in a 1996 poem, “Cameo Appearance,” inspired by a documentary film about the bombing of Belgrade:

I had a small, nonspeaking part
In a bloody epic. I was one of the
Bombed and fleeing humanity.
In the distance our great leader
Crowed like a rooster from a balcony,
Or was it a great actor
Impersonating our great leader?

And yet, although he points himself out to his children,

squeezed between the man
With two bandaged hands raised
And the old woman with her mouth open
As if she were showing us a tooth
That hurts badly

he can’t get them to spot him in the “huge gray crowd,/That was like any other gray crowd”:

Trot off to bed, I said finally.
I know I was there. One take
Is all they had time for.
We ran, and the planes grazed our hair,
And then they were no more
As we stood dazed in the burning city,
But, of course, they didn’t film that.

For Simic, then, poetry is a means of recording what doesn’t get filmed, whatever eludes or is suppressed by the kinds of narrative that offer to make sense of our lives only at the cost of dangerously simplifying the contradictory, incomplete, and random nature of experience. The voice at 3:00 AM refuses to allow any single discourse or genre to hold sway: “Who put,” runs the two-line poem of that title,

canned laughter
Into my crucifixion scene?

Although not many of Simic’s poems end up turning the page, and he specializes in radical acts of ellipsis and foreshortening—“O you simple, indefinable, ineffable, and so forth” (“Beauty”), or

You’re the famous torturer much feared
I beg you to spare my love
Who is in your darkest prison cell
I wish to marry him etc.

(“Rough Outline”)

—central to his ars poetica is the ideal of an almost Whitmanesque expansiveness; the surest way of freeing oneself from the limitations of a particular mind-set or discourse is to juxtapose it with a different or even contradictory one. Like Whitman, Simic is drawn to lists and catalogs, to poems scavenged from the random collisions of the streets:

The curtains of cheap hotels flying out of windows
Like seagulls, but everything else quiet…
Steam rising out of the subway gratings…
Bodies glistening with sweat…
Madness, and you might even say, paradise!

(“Paradise”—his ellipses)

The enthusiasm of the first-generation immigrant for American diversity and possibility shines undimmed through such lines. The erotically glistening bodies contrast sharply with the maimed and traumatized, “the cripple and the imbecile,” who inhabit his wartime and postwar Belgrade cityscapes. Asked by Hulse to describe his ideal city, Simic replies:

My ideal city already exists. It is New York…. New York is the place where my imagination and intellect are at home…. I’m not surprised various religious fundamentalists and nationalists hate it. To see different races and ethnic groups work together and get along terrifies them since it goes against everything they believe…. The revenge of the small town bullies, village priests and provincial fascists has been the secret force behind so much recent history. They all dream of burning down the cities. What frightens them and makes them froth with hatred are the things I adore.

Simic’s minimalism, then, is of a particularly impure kind. This is what so distinguishes his work from that of Yugoslavian poets such as Ivan Lalicå« and Vasko Popa, whose work he first began translating in the early Sixties. The riddles of Popa, for instance, seem to evolve wholly on their own terms, to emerge from his severe, deadpan conjugations of language like some irrefutable, if obscure, mathematical formula. “The usual drama of the Self,” as Simic notes in his introduction to his versions of Popa’s work collected in Homage to the Lame Wolf (1987), “is completely absent.” Popa, and Lalicå« after him, set about fusing the technical innovations of twentieth-century poetry—in particular French Surrealism—with the traditions of Serbian folklore, to create a poetry at once modern and archetypal. Simic freely acknowledges his debt to their work, but perhaps equally significant to his development was his purchase in 1959 of a secondhand copy of Dudley Fitts’s New Directions Anthology of Contemporary Latin-American Poetry (1942). In a recent review for this paper of a selection of the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Simic recalls the impact made on him of the work of Borges, César Vallejo, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Nicolás Guillén, and Neruda himself:

I remember turning its pages in the store, realizing what a valuable book it was, paying for it quickly, and rushing home to read all of its 666 pages that very night. It was like reading Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for the first time, seeing a Buster Keaton movie, hearing Thelonius Monk, and making other such exhilarating discoveries.*

It is perhaps a typical immigrant paradox that the major poetic influences on Simic’s evolution into an American poet were not American. He was not, however, alone in turning to foreign models in his search for ways of escaping the straitjacket of the dry, New Criticism–friendly lyric that dominated the American poetry establishment of the Fifties. The prevailing tone of the official poetry world is nicely captured in his description in A Fly in the Soup of a reading he attended at NYU sometime in the late Fifties:

Just as the professional lovers of poetry in the audience were already closing their eyes blissfully in anticipation of the poet’s familiar, soul-stirring clichés, there was the sound of paper being torn. We all turned around to look. A shabby old man was ripping newspapers into a brown shopping bag. He saw people glare at him and stopped. The moment we turned back to the poet, who went on reading, oblivious to everything, in a slow monotone, the man resumed ripping, but now more cautiously, with long pauses between rips.

And so it went: the audience would turn around with angry faces, he’d stop for a while and then continue, while the poet read on and on.

The Beats, the New York School Poets, Deep Image poets such as Robert Bly and W.S. Merwin had all made use of the techniques of European Surrealism in their various attempts to rip apart the prevailing poetic conventions. Simic was perhaps fortunate to begin writing in the wake of the poetry wars which invited all poets to identify themselves either with the “cooked” (i.e., the formal) or the “raw” (i.e., the experimental), and he has cleverly avoided allowing his work to be co-opted by any group since. He seems as aware as Dickinson, or another of his heroes, Joseph Cornell, that his art depends on protecting at all costs his status as an “outsider.” In his introduction to his translations of the poetry of Ivan Lalicå«, Roll Call of Mirrors (1988), he quotes with approval a declaration by the American poet Charles Wright: “Poetry is an exile’s art. Anyone who writes it seriously writes from an exile’s point of view.”

There is a political dimension to this ideal of nonalliance which was thrown into particular relief by the civil war that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the Nineties. The opposite of nonalliance, of art’s “clear head in the face of calamity,” is the kind of murderous nationalism that rejects “the possibility of any kind of choice,” as he puts it in one of a number of pieces on the conflict reprinted in The Metaphysician in the Dark, “believing instead in the iron law that says we must either kill or be killed.” Much of his invective in these articles is directed at the idiocies pronounced by ignorant American and British political commentators on Balkan issues, who, Simic argues, ended up colluding with, rather than attempting to expose, the discourses of ethnicity unleashed by various demagogues who fomented the breakup and ethnic cleansing that followed. “The approach of the West to the crisis,” he tells Hulse, “emphasized tribal rather than individual rights. In other words, they repudiated their own democratic values.”

And there is no doubt the approach of war and the war itself reactivated in his imagination the vision of history inculcated by his formative years in Belgrade:

History practicing its scissor-clips
In the dark,
So everything comes out in the end
Missing an arm or a leg.
Still, if that’s all you’ve got
To play with today…
This doll at least had a head,
And its lips were red!

(“Frightening Toys”—his ellipsis)

The transition from a bleakly unillusioned diagnosis to a determination to make do with what’s left “to play with today” is characteristic of the movement of many of Simic’s poems of recent years. Political and journalistic commonplaces are undercut, or rendered weightless by the incongruous contexts into which he slides them. The poems move insistently toward what is available in the here and now,

the small arcana of the frying pan,
The smell of olive oil and garlic wafting
From room to empty room, the black cat
Rubbing herself against your bare leg
While you shuffle toward the distant light
And the tinkle of glasses in the kitchen.

(“The Lives of the Alchemists”)

Sunday Papers,” from the same volume, Night Picnic (2001), opens with a moment of complacent sententiousness,

The butchery of the innocent
Never stops. That’s about all
We can ever be sure of, love,

but ends up celebrating the end product of a different kind of butchery, a lamb roast

In your outstretched hands
Smelling of garlic and rosemary.

Simic has written often and expansively of the delights of food. “What’s a poem,” he asks Hulse when quizzed about the numerous references to meals and restaurants in his work, “but a well-prepared dish served on a plate?” Simic has been uninhibited in celebrating his favorite dishes in both poetry and prose. The Metaphysician in the Dark expands our knowledge of his culinary preferences with an essay, first published in Food and Wine in 2000, called “Self-Portrait with a Bowl of Spaghetti,” which includes a versified dream-menu:

Give me your tongue tasting of white beans and garlic,
Sexy little assortment of formaggi and frutta!
I want to drown with you in red wine like a pear….

Food provides many of the hedonistic moments that dissolve, temporarily at least, the historical and existential anxieties mapped by Simic’s poems. Even the most venerable figures of literature can be cut down to size by a culinary metaphor:

O King Oedipus, O Hamlet,
Fallen like flies
In the pot of cabbage soup,
No use beating with your fists,
Or sticking your tongues out.

(“Folk Songs”)

And the most memorable of Simic’s portraits of the members of his family in A Fly in the Soup (the ultimate comic abomination) occur in the course of his descriptions of prolonged, argumentative mealtimes. “Would Kant,” he wonders, “have been a better philosopher if he had worried about sausages as much as he did about the critique of judgement?” Well, we’ll never know, but it’s the kind of question only Charles Simic would think of asking.

  1. *

    Charles Simic, “Poetry in Unlikely Places,” The New York Review, September 25, 2003.

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